Adopting & Exporting Crop & Livestock Technology

Ag Research GraphResearch was the engine that drove agriculture in the middle of the 20th century. Farmers in the U.S. struggled to adopt new crops and livestock technologies. At the same time, ag scientists adapted the new technology and exported it around the world in order to save millions of people from starvation.

When we chart the real expenditure of public dollars from both federal and state sources – adjusted for inflation to 1992 dollars – we see that there was a slow growth through the first half of the 20th century. Then, about 1950, spending shot up. Research grants doubled from under $500 billion in 1950 to over $1 trillion in 1963. Research spending reached $1.5 trillion in 1972, and over $2.5 trillion by 1990.

This chart only includes public expenditures for agricultural research. It does not include the money spent by hybrid seed corn companies or food processors or fertilizer companies or pesticide companies – all of which were making similar investments. The last half of the 20th century in agriculture could be termed the research era, and most of that research was devoted to producing better crops and livestock. This research had profound impacts on the practice of farming.

  • As the knowledge base for agriculture became more specialized, farmers were rewarded if they specialized. For instance, in the 19th century, farmers needed a generalized knowledge of how best to prepare a seedbed, how to apply manure for nutrients, how to cultivate weeds and how to harvest. He or she needed to know how to feed animals, collect their products (like eggs or cream), butcher them and preserve meat. Most of this knowledge applied to a variety of crops and livestock. But in the last half of the 20th century, researchers were showing which specific nutrients, applied at certain times and in certain ways would make a big difference in one crop but not another. Equipment manufacturers were developing specialized machines for specific crops and specific planting and tillage practices. Farmers were rewarded with better yields and more money if they understood in depth the crops they were raising and the livestock they were raising. So, in real ways, research changed cropping patterns as farmers began to specialize in a few or even only one species of crop. Animal and processing research encouraged farmers to specialize in one type of livestock, changing livestock patterns.
  • Science in AgricultureWorldwide, research would literally save the lives of millions of people. Demographers in the 1950s were predicting a population explosion and resulting famine. Writers like Paul R. Ehrlich predicted a Population Bomb where an exploding world population would outpace any growth in agriculture. “The battle to feed all humanity is over,” Ehrlich proclaimed. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” But even as he wrote that book, the Green Revolution had begun. Scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug were applying what they had learned in the U.S. to agriculture in the third world. New plant varieties, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation techniques enabled poor nations like Mexico, India, Pakistan and the Philippines to dramatically increase yields. In essence, we exported American agricultural technology and saved millions of lives.
  • In 1953, an article in the science magazine Nature heralded fundamental research that would change the world in the next 50 years. Almost no one noticed. Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick proposed that they had figured out the structure of DNA, Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, the building block of genes in all living things. Only a few reviews of the article appeared in the press at the time, but the discovery of DNA’s structure opened the door to fundamental changes in agriculture. Today, genetically modified plants, drugs and animals have the potential to increase productivity exponentially.

All of this innovation in agriculture changed the very nature of farming and changed farmers. Farming was no longer only a natural process, it became a scientific, industrial process. The farmers who survived and thrived – no matter where they were in the world – were forced to become efficient managers and engineers, applying basic scientific research results to the practical problems of growing food, fiber and even energy.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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